With 2018 just around the corner, President Trump and Republican leaders in Congress are desperate to deliver their first major legislative victory to their base and donors: an overhaul of the U.S. tax code that they're pushing through the Senate this week. While the party's top brass is trying to portray a unified front, huge hurdles remain to getting many rank-and-file Republicans on board with the proposal that seems to be changing hourly.
On Tuesday, Republicans passed the bill out of the budget committee on a strictly partisan, 12-11 vote, as protesters chanted, "Kill the bill! Don't kill us!" before being dragged out by Capitol Police. Two Republicans, Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, voted to move the measure forward even though they're still unsure whether they can support the final proposal.
The same day, Trump brought his entourage down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Senate to directly answer questions from the six or so wavering Republicans who hold the fate of the proposal, and potentially the party's future, in their hands.
In the closed-door meeting, Trump tried to rally the troops behind the controversial plan. He later told reporters the private lunch was a "love fest," and many Republicans agreed with his assessment.
"I am very very optimistic about it," Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst told reporters upon leaving the session with the president. "What came out of that meeting was very inspirational for me. I think it's the right thing to do."
But the smiles and accolades for the cameras mask the deep divisions that remain in the GOP. On Monday, Montana Sen. Steve Daines came out opposed to the plan, and other Republicans are also voicing reservations even as they're stopping short of opposing the bill for now.
That has party leaders working behind the scenes to win over skeptical Republicans while not making changes that are so drastic they lose the support of other party members. They're using a budget maneuver called reconciliation to avoid a filibuster and pass the tax overhaul with the bare minimum 50 votes, which they can do with only GOP support – but they can only afford to lose two Republican votes.
"It's a challenging exercise. Think of sitting there with a Rubik's Cube trying to get 50," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters at the Capitol Tuesday after meeting with the president. "We do have a few members who have concerns and we're trying to address them, and we know that we will not be able to go forward until we get 50 people that are satisfied and that's what we're working on."
Some skeptical Republicans are negotiating a backstop in case the tax plan makes the federal debt balloon in the coming years. That backstop, still being negotiated in secret, would effectively mean repealing some of the new tax policy if it ends up hurting the economy.
Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, whose opposition to the GOP health care bill helped kill it earlier this year, is not on board with the tax plan, but she is leaving room to be won over.
Collins doesn't like that the tax bill scraps Obamacare's health insurance mandate, so she's lobbying party leaders to include a provision that would, among other things, stabilize the health insurance marketplace in the short term.
"I'm not there yet, but we're definitely making good progress on issues that I care about," Collins tells Rolling Stone, noting that she wishes her party leaders would slow down the process.
But Trump has called on Republicans to pass the plan through the Senate by their Christmas recess, even though lawmakers have yet to reach a deal to keep the government from shutting down after funding runs out next week.
On Tuesday, after the president tweeted that he didn't see a path forward to meet Democrats' demands to fix the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as part of the year-end spending deal, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi abruptly canceled their previously scheduled meeting with the president. Now the two parties have no clear path forward to fund the government and the clock is quickly winding down. Still, Republican leaders are rushing to pass tax reform this week.
"We don't need to slow it down. We've been talking about changes to the tax code on Capitol Hill for years," Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy tells Rolling Stone. "Everybody knows what the issues are, frankly everybody knows how they are going to vote, and I don't blame anybody for offering suggestions up until the end about how to improve the bill – I'm doing the same thing myself – but it's time to vote."
Democrats have a different take on the bill's speed. "That's because they don't want folks to know what's in it," Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida tells Rolling Stone. "People are not focused on this, like they were on the Affordable Care Act, because there were so many distractions or interruptions, such as Thanksgiving."
Any version of the bill that passes in the Senate still has to be reconciled with the bill that House Republicans passed earlier this month in a conference committee with members of both chambers. That was also a part of Trump's sales pitch Tuesday: He promised the version of the bill passed this week won't be the final version that gets signed into law.
The president's message was "that we have to ... keep fighting for it before the vote, and then fight more in conference, but deliver," North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis told reporters at the Capitol.
The proposal now also includes a provision to open up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, a move seen by critics as an obvious ploy to buy the vote of Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whose opposition also helped derail the Obamacare repeal effort. Opponents of the bill say this is yet another reason to slow down the tax bill.
"As people began to discover that their Medicare was part of Obamacare, that their insurance policy through an exchange was part of Obamacare, that their sister's pre-existing condition got covered because of Obamacare, that created a much more personal blowback than a lot of other issues," Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse tells Rolling Stone, adding that the rush to buy individual Republican votes may backfire on party leaders. "Sometimes you add things to the donkey and ultimately its little back brakes."
Wednesday Trump is traveling to Missouri to pitch the tax plan to voters in a key purple state whose Democratic incumbent senator, Claire McCaskill, is facing a tough reelection next year. She and 16 other Democrats, plus one Independent, held a press conference this week saying they're open to supporting tax reform on the condition that Republicans scrap their current proposal and negotiate a middle-of-the-road plan.
With no seat at the table thus far, moderate Democrats say even provisions in the bill that would help their local economies aren't enticing them. For instance, McCaskill's state is home to Anheuser-Busch, which would likely realize new profits under the bill because it slashes the federal tax on alcohol by 16 percent. But McCaskill notes that independent analysis of the bill shows it is aimed at the upper-class and corporations.
"It's so weighted towards the wealthy – there's nothing in this that's tempting," she tells Rolling Stone. "The longer they have with this bill, the more and more and more it is [weighted] for the wealthy."
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the finance committee, which has jurisdiction on tax policy, says the rush to pass the tax overhaul with only Republican support is blinding the party on an issue that touches every American.
"Look, this is just a grab bag now of special-interest provisions that multinational [companies] care about, donors and special interests," Wyden tells Rolling Stone. "This tramples all over the history of how you go about writing tax policy thoughtfully."